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  • Writer's pictureJulie Love

A New Approach to Anxiety

We tend towards one of two responses to Anxiety: either run away, or shove the feeling down and try to ignore it. Those around the anxious person often echo these options – by either helping the person avoid their anxiety triggers and offering accommodations or by reassuring them that there’s nothing to be afraid of, and that if they just do the scary thing, it will get easy. (Never say that. At most, suggest it might get less hard.)

Anxiety is often distinguished from fear by saying that fear has a focus, while anxiety is a free-floating sense of threat, without a specific cause. This definition quickly falls apart when people point out the very specific objects, activities, or experiences that trigger their anxiety. At this point the definition defenders hasten to amend it and say that there’s no rational cause for the fear. But rationality is often an odds game – a horrible experience is horrible, and if it happens to anyone there’s a non-zero chance it could happen to me, so what’s irrational about being afraid of dying in a plane crash, or catching a deadly disease, or losing a loved one, or failing a test? … And pretty soon both sides are on the spiral of Arguing with the Anxiety, the endless tug of war between fight and flight.

Anxiety is a natural part of healthy physiology; an Anxiety Disorder is when that healthy response goes awry. Sometimes this is caused by trauma, but it can also come from simply forgetting the original purpose of the anxiety. It’s an alarm system, a call to action. If the smoke detector goes off in your house, do you run out of the building, or yank the battery out and ignore it? Or do you have a third option…. You know, checking to see if there’s anything burning? Anxiety is your body’s equivalent of a smoke detector, but one that doesn’t have an easily removed battery, and one that really cares about its job. Repeatedly ignoring it, trying to squelch it, can result in it going off more and more, so we ignore it even harder, so it goes off more, desperately trying to get us to listen to it.

So when a person is anxious, try to shift from seeing the anxiety as an inescapable boss to obey, or as a foolish coward to ignore – see it as a concerned friend. Ask it exactly what is the fear, what does it worry is going to happen? The fears are often exaggerated – seen as either more dreadful or more likely than they actually are, but don’t jump to declare that the feared thing is either harmless or never going to happen. For the quite possible ones (others judging me, throwing up, encountering a common thing like a bug, etc.), agree with the fear and ask what to do next. Acknowledge it would be unpleasant, go ahead and imagine it happening, and then move the imagination through the experience to the point where they survive and cope with it. For the unlikely fears, there is usually a core of having seen this happen to someone else (often on the news). Confronted with such horror, the urge for empathy can be hijacked by anxiety, as “I can’t imagine what they went through” becomes “oh, wait, yes I can.” Focus on that empathy, on the desire to alleviate others’ pain and the helplessness to do so. This broadens the experience and draws in the fact that these events are very rare, that the most real pain belongs to others, and that the call to action for the anxiety might be offering support.

It can be hard to shift from “don’t be silly” to “okay, then what?” But if we can do so, especially for the youngest kids (whose fears are often both easiest to shrug off and the easiest to explore and resolve), we might help move from anxiety being a disorder to anxiety being the helpful response it was meant to be.

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